Demystifying the World Bank and IMF

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Charlotte Carlsson

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are often associated with a bunch of grey-clad number crunchers in Washington DC. Too boring, too technical, too obscure. Its true that their jargon and formula-cluttered reports can easily put off or intimidate anyone.

Perhaps best known for its role in the debt crisis and being a target of protesters in Prague, the World Bank is now expanding its role to a global knowledge bank.

Producing research and setting standards on anything from post-conflict peace building to accessible development information, there is reason to get involved. Working to give civil society groups a clearer view and a stronger say in the way these financial institutions are run is the London-based Bretton Woods Project.

Its not just about blowing the whistle when the Bank or IMF overstep the line, but to exchange information and encourage debate, comments Bretton Woods Project coordinator Alex Wilks. The Project works with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics, parliamentarians and others interested in the international financial institutions. Established by the Development and Environment Group a network of 30 UK non-governmental organisations involved in international policy issues it presses for increased transparency and participation of civil society in the decision-making process.

A closed-door mentality has marked the history of the World Bank and IMF since their inception at a conference in Bretton Woods in 1944. Despite recent efforts to reach out to civil society groups, many have been deterred by the complexity of their jargon and often simplistic view of the neoliberal model as a blueprint for development. The Bretton Woods Project tries to demystify these institutions by tracking key policy statements and reports and providing critiques and early warnings to NGOs across the world.

The World Bank makes loans or guarantees credit to 177 member countries. It aims to help countries reduce poverty by making long-term loans to governments for infrastructure projects such as building dams and bridges, or reform sectors such as energy or transport. The IMF seeks to maintain an orderly balance of international trade and payments by regularly assessing economies and making short-term loans to those with balance of payment difficulties. This gives it massive influence over the manner in which borrower nations develop.

In other words, the two agencies determine whether developing countries get access to aid money and how it is spent. At the same time they have to balance conflicting corporate interests of industrialised countries with what makes sense locally. In addition to having a massive influence over countries development, the World Bank and IMF are looking to increase their influence over what we know about it. A global internet supersite on development topics, orchestrated by the World Bank, is currently being planned for an initial budget of US$60 million. It will include edited guides to analysis of over 100 development issues. But it is likely to represent a rather one-sided, or at least screened, version of the issues. Together with other NGOs, the Bretton Woods Project is now looking at alternative ways to harness the Internet to produce and share information. Some progress is already under-way through initiatives like (see

Another relatively new area for the World Bank is conflict prevention and peace building. A policy framework paper, drawn up when their post conflict unit was established in 1998, says it aims to address some root causes of conflict through promoting social cohesion and inclusion in all member countries, with more specific strategies for areas affected by conflict or post-conflict recovery. The unit has produced a number of research reports, the most recent looking at greed and grievance in civil war. According to NGOs, this is a whole new area where more critical analysis and debate is needed.

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